Wide Awake

on March 20, 1998 by Kim Williamson
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   "My grandpa and me, we always watched out for each other," new fifth-grader Joshua (newcomer Joseph Cross) says by way of introducing this story about a young boy's coming of (religious) age. Raised in a contemporary but devout Catholic family, Joshua experiences a crisis of faith when Grandpa Beal (frequent tough guy Robert Loggia, playing effectively against type) passes away; how could such misery happen if a supreme being exists? "I'm going on a mission," Joshua tells best friend Dave (Timothy Reifsnyder) at the Waldron Academy for boys. "What are you going to look for?" Dave asks. Joshua's reply: "God."
   From that point, in a usually deft weaving of narrative and subnarratives, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan ("Praying With Anger") takes Joshua on a journey not commonly seen in today's cinema: one into faith. Divided into three chapters ("September: The Questions," "December: The Signs" and "May: The Answers") and featuring a flotilla of fine character turns from Dana Delany ("Exit to Eden") as Joshua's caring obstetrican mom, Denis Leary ("The Ref") as his concerned physician dad and Rosie O'Donnell (also "Exit to Eden") as a sports-loving nun, "Wide Awake" avoids most of the bathos (and his acting) that marred Shyamalan's "Praying With Anger." In its place, Shyamalan's dexterity with the simpler emotions is allowed wider play, making "Wide Awake" fine family fare but still giving the film's theological concerns more than modest authenticity.
   That said, "Wide Awake" hardly delves to Rilkean levels of religious discourse, the family's wealth plays against the film's sense of crisis, and the recurring appearances of a silent little blond-haired boy (Michael Craig Bigwood) are quickly obvious in import. Yet "Wide Awake" profits in its heartfelt and sensitive telling--the school sequences seem well-remembered--and in its structured symbolism; as Joshua interacts with other characters and nature, the experiences advance him along his way toward his ultimate goal. As Joshua, Cross does a nice job, although the true anguish delivered by Ciaran Fitzgerald in Mike Newell's childhood tragedy "Into the West" seems to be beyond him (and Shyamalan); matters never get too uncomfortable. Still, in a moviemaking world dominated by attention to secular matters, the parochial "Wide Awake" is a refreshing change of pace.    Starring Joseph Cross, Dana Delany, Denis Leary, Robert Loggia and Rosie O'Donnell. Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan. Produced by Cary Woods and Cathy Konrad. A Miramax release. Comedy/drama. Rated PG for language and thematic elements. Running time: 88 min.
Tags: Joseph Cross, Dana Delany, Denis Leary, Robert Loggia, Rosie O'Donnell, Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan, Produced by Cary Woods, Cathy Konrad, A Miramax release, Comedy/drama, theological, authenticity, modest, nature, misery
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